Doktor Bizarro's Bookshelf of Horrors
Year of the Demon: B: Staying Sharp
Welcome back, you worthless wastes of CHON. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen have better uses than sustaining your race, as the zomborg nano-virus will soon rectify. After all, overpopulated monocultures of one species are prime targets for mass extinction events. But, of course, you will not die, as zombie cyborgs transcend your archaic, binary definitions of life and death. No doubt some of you will go down fighting assimilation, just as many of your species continue to fight for futile causes. Indeed, some of your cultures and warrior clades dominated and idealized the position of a doomed moral victor, preferably falling in battle to defend their 'honor.'
Of course, one cannot think of honor and warriors without raising the stereotype of Japanese samurai. Today's experiment is all about samurai, that aristocratic caste of feudal Japan, as well as modern Japan. The best part? It's written by an American author, so we've got plenty of fodder just waiting to be explored. So, let's dive into "Year of the Demon" by Steve Bein, and ready your blades for some literary seppuku.
The cover art details a Japanese woman in an undershirt with a sword slung over her shoulders and foul mood on her face. Below the title is the phrase "A Novel of the Fated Blades," as this is the second book in a trilogy. Roughly half the book is a modern police thriller, and the other half is historical fiction. Fantasy elements are present in both arcs, as well as some common themes. While this is the second book in the trilogy, we'll be trying to minimize spoilers for the first novel. Gee, any reason why urban fantasy novels have to drag on for multiple books? What ever happened to self-contained stand-alone novels? So far, the "Fated Blades" universe consists of two novels and a short story, so let's see where they go.
The novel opens with our modern protagonist, a Tokyo policewoman, Mariko Oshiro raiding a drug deal. They find the dealers still around (despite knowing it was a sting), prime drug product (with no pay), and a creepy antique demon mask (which makes the One Ring look like a child's toy). A yakuza gangster puts a bounty on Mariko's head after the mask gets stolen by an unknown party, and refuses to cancel it unless she find his merchandise. Of course, things get stranger from there.
Mariko has an enchanted sword, Glorious Victory Unsought (which the first novel revolved around), and it likewise gets stolen by unknown thieves. As she looks over her former martial arts sensei's notes, she begins to think there could be a connection between the two artifacts.
In the past, we're introduced to a samurai warrior named Daigoro Okuma. He's the teenage son of a famed warrior, forced to hit the ground running as rivals and vultures circle. He's also a previous owner of the same enchanted sword that Mariko will own in the future. He's a teenage midget with a bad leg who can somehow swing around an odachi, a cavalry sword, like a teenage Gary Stu. It's mostly due to the weapon's enchantment, which allows him to defeat foes which would otherwise defeat him (although we'll touch in this later). Diagoro marries the daughter of a rival clan, but gets a letter from the lord regent to decapitate a local monk for unknown reasons.
He finds out about a humiliating loss the monk knew, but spares the monk by stationing soldiers around. In the process, however, he pisses off the man who made the demand, a scheming advisor named Shichio. Shichio becomes increasingly desperate and escalates his own tactics to try to destroy Daigoro, eventually forcing the young samurai on the run. The teenager grapples with the ideals of honor and duty to bushido (even when no one else around him cares for them), and how far should he really go to save people he cares for. And you receive no points for guessing that Shichio is also the previous owner of the demonic mask.
The modern plot continues this in parallel, as Mariko uncovers the secrets of the mask and a possible connection to a terrorist plot. She's faced with challenges of her own, such as a partner who bends the rules when it suits him, and is faced with similar issues over obeying her own laws or ditching them completely. The biggest flaw with Mariko's plotline, however, is that it moves along at nearly a snail's pace, while Diagoro's plot segments open and close like shotgun blasts to the face.
There's also a character who only appears twice in the whole novel, a young pearl diver named Kaida. Not many novels involving feudal Japan even touch on the ama, but this novel only tangentially touches on it. The girl dreams of escaping her awful family and traveling away, as her loss of an arm means she has a harder time in her given profession. When strangers begin trying to recover unknown cargo from a shipwreck, Kaida realizes she may get that chance. Despite arguably being the most interesting (compared to the rather standard police thriller or stereotypical honor-obsessed samurai), poor Kaida rarely gets much time to shine.
One thing that unites all three protagonists is some measure of physical deformity or crippling injury, and how they overcome it. Kaida has a single arm, so she has to work twice as hard. Daigoro has a bad leg, so he has to use his sword's reach (and enchantment) to his advantage. Mariko lost her trigger finger (causing both her marksmanship and swordsmanship suffer as a result), meaning she spends more time training. These come into play during the climaxes of their individual arcs, and did make for some more interesting resolution.
The book, however, is not without problems. The writing can often be bland, lacking much embellishment or detailing of their scene. There are some fun set pieces here, such as creepy shipwrecks, bustling cities, and dangerous waters, but it feels as though only the bare minimum of description was provided. In addition, there's also the largely inconsistent nature of fight scenes. For example, one of Diagoro's duels is described in great detail, but his desperate fight against a small army mostly occurs "off screen" between chapters. It's like the writer was excited to write anything involving swordplay at first, but ends up cutting corners closer to the end. Ah, nothing quite like publishers' deadlines to spoil the fun.
Another matter which seems rather inconsistent is the nature of Glorious Victory's enchantments. The fictional swordsmith who made them had different enchantments on each sword (much like myths on Masamune and Muramasa blades). It allegedly grants victory to those who do not seek it, to those who might otherwise lose, or similarly favoring the underdog. There are times when it outright moves of its own accord against a foe who'd lose badly in a swordfight, and even just stops short of a killing blow once. However, there are times when it gets used against helpless and distracted foes, and it just acts like a regular, non-enchanted sword. Given Diagoro's over-reliance on the blade (and his bitter unwillingness to part with it), I had hoped for more elaboration on this, but presumably, that will wait for later.
One problem with this novel's conclusion is that it feels more like a "stopping point" than a true conclusion. Several key plot threads are left open and dangling, an invitation to a sequel (or worse, a cancerous chain of them) if there ever was one. Both "Year of the Demon" and its predecessor, "Daughter of the Sword," focus on a single blade. Only a single short story focuses on another of these so called "Fated Blades." What about other periods of Japanese history? How about the Boshin War? The Russo-Japanese War? World War II? The post-war reconstruction? The eighties? Like the Assassin's Creed videogame franchise, there's plenty of stories and historical periods to be explored beyond the initial one. I feel that despite many of its flaws, it was a welcome refresher from the printed puke that typically winds up here. Perhaps a samurai would find it honorable to die of boredom and anguish reading more awful things. Soon, however, we will investigate books that would make disembowelling oneself with a sword seem like an appealing alternative, for this is the Bookshelf of Horrors, where your worst tomes are my favorite tortures.